Thursday, November 03, 2011

At Elite Schools, Easing Up a Bit on Homework

Yet more tyranny of the anecdote, feeding off the perfect example of it: Race to Nowhere.  It is completely wrong to look at privileged, high-achieving kids, some of whom may be stressed (though they also seem to be having a pretty great time based on my direct observations) and think that this is the problem we have in America.  In fact, the problem is precisely the reverse: the real problem we have across 90% of American K-12 education is low expectations, little homework, grade inflation, endless hours of messing around, watching TV, etc.  It is really dangerous when our nation's elite fails to recognize this…

It was the kind of memo that high school students would dream of getting, if they dreamed in memos.

Lisa Waller, director of the high school at Dalton, a famously rigorous private school on the Upper East Side, sent a letter to parents this summer announcing that tests and papers would be staggered to make sure students did not become overloaded. January midterms would be pushed back two weeks so students would not have to study during vacation.

Across town at the Trinity School, another of Manhattan's elite academies, the administration has formed a task force to examine workload, and the upper school, grades 9 to 12, has been trying ways to coordinate test-taking with papers, labs and other projects.

Horace Mann School, in the Bronx, opened a tutoring center this year to help students manage their work. Hunter College High School, which has a tough admissions exam, is for the first time this year offering homework holidays, on Halloween, the Chinese New Year (Jan. 23) and a day nearer spring, March 14.

Armed with neuroscience, self-analysis and common sense, some of New York City's most competitive high schools, famed for their Marine-like mentality when it comes to homework, have begun to lighten the load for fear of crushing their teenage charges.

"We have incredibly talented high-achieving kids who need to be appropriately taken care of," said Jessica Bagby, the head of Trinity's upper school. "We realize the pressures on them, and to the degree that we're complicit, we need to own that."

Homework debates are both evergreen and charged in top-tier schools, but several private-school watchers say the recent moves to ease up are a marked shift. There remains a significant cadre of parents — call it the Tiger Mom camp — who see hard work as a rite of passage, part of what they pay $40,000 for and essential to making their children competitive. (One father commented wryly that it was unlikely that parents in India and China were fretting about overwork.)

But for the first time in recent memory, many see an edge by the other camp, fueled in part by the 2010 documentary "Race to Nowhere," which focuses on the detrimental effects of overprogramming students who lack sleep and joy.


At Elite Schools, Easing Up a Bit on Homework

Published: October 23, 2011 

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